Oviri (Tahitian: Savage or wild) is a ceramic sculpture by the French artist Paul Gauguin, completed during the winter of 1894/95. It is finished in partially glazed stoneware and depicts the Tahitian goddess of death and mourning "Oviri-moe-aihere" (The savage who sleeps in the forest). In the most commonly accepted interpretation of the figure, Oviri is crushing an adult wolf at her feet while clutching a cub at her side; as if she kills the mother to gain her child. Other interpretations invoke themes such as infanticide, sacrifice, or the vengeful mother archetype referenced in Delacroix's Medea About to Kill Her Children.
In a letter to Daniel Monfreid, Gauguin wrote that he would like to have the sculpture for his garden and eventually placed over his grave, the sculpture having failed to sell.[a] There are only three other surviving remarks from him on the sculpture: on an 1895 presentation mount of two impressions of a woodcut of the Oviri figure he made to Stéphane Mallarmé where he called the figure a strange and cruel enigma, in an 1897 letter to Vollard where he referred to it as La Tueuse ("The Murderess"), and in a probably 1899 drawing of the figure where he appends an inscription referencing Honoré de Balzac's novel Séraphîta.
The psychoanalyst John Gedo and anthropologist Paul van der Grijp think that Oviri was intended as an epithet to reinforce Gauguin's persona as a "civilised savage".[b] He wrote in his final letter to his biographer and collaborator Charles Morice , that "You were wrong that day when you said I was wrong to say I was a savage. It's true enough: I am a savage. And civilised people sense the fact. In my work there is nothing that can surprise or disconcert, except the fact that I am a savage in spite of myself. That's also why my work is inimitable."
Primarily a painter, Gauguin came to ceramics around 1886, taught by the French sculptor and ceramist Ernest Chaplet (1835-1909). Félix Bracquemond had introduced Chaplet to Gauguin  who, stimulated by the new French art pottery, was experimenting with the form. During that winter of 1886-7, Gauguin attended the Vaugirard studio and with Chaplet created some 55 stoneware pots with applied figures or ornamental fragments, multiple handles, painted and partially glazed. Gauguin completed Oviri in the winter of 1894 during his return from Tahiti and submitted it to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts 1895 salon opening in April the following year. There are two versions of what subsequently ensued: Morice (1920) contended the work was "literally expelled" from the exhibition; Ambroise Vollard in 1937 said the work was only admitted when Chaplet threatened to withdraw his work. Gauguin took the opportunity to increase his public exposure by writing an outraged letter on the state of modern ceramics to Le Soir.
Gauguin first visited Tahiti in 1891. Attracted by the beauty of Tahitian women, he began a set of sculptural mask-like portraits on paper. The portraits evoke both melancholy and death, conjuring the Tahitian state of faaturuma, or resignation (also translated as brooding or melancholy); imagery he later called upon for his Oviri ceramic. Gauguin's first wood-carvings in Tahiti were made with a guava wood that quickly crumbled, and consequently these have not survived. Gray mentions three plaster casts that were made of Oviri, the fissured surfaces of which suggest a prior undocumented wood-carving that has not survived. One of these plaster copies was given to Monfreid and now belongs to the Musée départemental Maurice Denis "The Priory" in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. A number of bronzes have been cast from this copy, including the one placed on Gauguin's grave at Atuona.
Oviri has long blond or grey hair reaching to her knees. Her head is disproportionately large, as are her eyes, while she has adolescent breasts. She is generally seen as clutching a wolf cub to her hip, intended as a symbol of her wild power and more abstractly, the indifference of nature. It is not clear whether the woman is smothering or hugging the wolf cub. A second animal, likely another wolf, is shown at her feet either curling in submission or dead. Historians such as Sue Taylor suggest this represents Gauguin. An earlier 1889 ceramic Black Venus, preparing the idea, depicted a woman kneeling over a decapitated head resembling Gauguin.
The association between the woman and a wolf stems from a remark Edgar Degas made defending Gauguin's work at the poorly received 1893 Durand-Ruel exhibition, when Degas quoted La Fontaine's fable The Wolf and the Dog: "You see, Gauguin is the wolf." In Oviri, the mature wolf, the European Gauguin, perishes while the whelp, the reborn Gauguin of Tahiti, survives.
The ancient myths of Tahiti had largely disappeared by Gauguin's time (he based his own accounts on other sources without acknowledgement), as had most artefacts associated with that culture. His representation of the goddess Oviri is thus entirely a work of imagination, informed by a collection of what he described in a letter to Odilon Redon as his "little world of friends" and which he took with him to Tahiti on his first visit. These included Redon's lithograph La Mort, as well as photographs of subjects such as a temple frieze at Borobudur, Java, and an Egyptian fresco from an XVIIIth dynasty tomb at Thebes. Two sources are suggested for Oviri, an Assyrian relief of Gilgamesh clutching a lion-cub in the Louvre and a Majapahit terracotta figure in the Djakarta museum, Java.
Art historian Christopher Gray (1915-1970) believes the head is based on the mummified skulls of chieftains in the Marquesas Islands. The eye-sockets of these were traditionally encrusted with mother-of-pearl and held to be divine. The body of the figure was based on Borobudor images of fecundity. Thus life and death were evoked in the same image. Morice called the sculpture Diane Chasseresse ("Diana the Huntress") i.e. the ancient Greek goddess Diana of the hunt, moon and childbirth, in a letter to Mallarmé trying to raise a public subscription to purchase the work. He made the same reference in his poems on Oviri. Barbara Landy interprets the life and death theme as Gauguin's need to abandon his civilised ego in a return to the natural state of the primitive savage.
Gray described the sculpture as representing "the expression of Gauguin's profound disillusionment and discouragement". Taylor notes that Morice might well have been describing Gauguin in his poem Shining Hina of the Woods, published in 1897 in La Revue Blanche as part of two long extracts from the Tahitian memoir Noa Noa they were collaborating on together. Hina is a Polynesian goddess, described in the poem as a Diana-like goddess clutching a wolf-cub, "... monstrous and majestic, Drunk with pride, rage and sorrow". Claire Frèches-Thory notes that Gauguin's situation was wretched at the time he executed the ceramic. He had suffered an incapacitating injury to an ankle in a drunken brawl in Concarneau the previous summer, had received derisory damages for this injury and had failed in another lawsuit to have some paintings returned to him, while finally a February 1895 Hôtel Drouot auction of his work to raise funds for a second visit to Tahiti had been a failure.
Oviri was the title of Gauguin's favourite Tahitian song, a melancholy tune of love and longing that mentions the subject's "savage, restless heart". The song conveys the love of two women, both of whom have grown silent. Gauguin translated the verse in Noa Noa and it was the only song from this work he reprinted in the Tahitian newspaper La Guêpes when he became its editor.[c] Danielsson remarks the song echoes his dual attachment to his wife Mette and his then vahine Teha'amana, his young native wife who is the focal point of Noa Noa.
Art historian Nancy Mowll Mathews thinks the creatures are bushy-tailed foxes, animals Gauguin had previously used in his 1889 wood-carving Soyez amoureuses vous serez heureuses ("Be in Love, You Will Be Happy") and in his 1891 Pont-Aven oil painting The Loss of Virginity. In an 1889 letter to Émile Bernard, he had described the Soyez amoureuses fox as an "Indian symbol of perversity". There is a long tradition in Asian folklore of foxes having the power to transform themselves into women (for example in Japanese Yōkai folklore). Mathews observes that by asking his Oviri figure be placed on his grave, Gauguin had made it clear this female figure was his alter ego and suggests he thought the fox as changeable in its gender as he was (according to Mathews) and thus symbolic of dangerous sexuality. Yeon Shim Chung (along with Taylor) notes that the aperture at the back of Oviri's head resembles a vaginal orifice. Taylor presents sources indicating that Gauguin was at this time suffering a syphilitic rash that prevented him from travelling to Tahiti for several months while he sought treatment.[d] She suggests the orifice is a pars pro toto for the woman who infected him.
Richard Brettell wrote that the Oviri figure appears in at least one drawing, two watercolor transfers and two related woodblocks. It is possible that the woodblocks were created in Pont-Aven in summer 1894, before the ceramic.
The last of these images to appear is probably the drawing in what is apparently the first issue of Gauguin's Papeete broadsheet Le Sourire: Journal sérieux (The Smile: A Serious Newspaper) dated 1899. It is accompanied by the inscription "Et le monstre, entréignant sa créature, féconde de sa semence des flancs généreux pour engendrer Séraphitus-Séraphita" (And the monster, embracing its creation, filled her generous womb with seed and fathered Séraphitus-Séraphita). Séraphitus-Séraphita is an allusion to Honoré de Balzac's novel Séraphîta which features an androgynous hero. In this first issue of Le Sourire, Gauguin reviewed a play by a local Maohi author, one of whose themes involved incest, and he invokes 'Séraphitus-Séraphita' in the course of his review. The review was favourable, congratulating the play's "savage author" and ending with a plea for women's sexual liberation through the abolishment of marriage. The accompanying drawing is distinctly androgynous. Gauguin's Noa Noa travelogue contained an account of a journey into the mountains with a young man whom he eventually conceives as sexless, leading him to meditate on the "androgynous side of the savage" in his manuscript. Ben Pollitt at Khan Academy notes that in Tahitian culture the craftsman/artist, neither warrior/hunter nor homemaker/carer, was conceived androgynously, an ambiguously gendered identity that appealed to Gauguin's subversive spirit.
The artist titled a 1894 self-portrait in patinated plaster Oviri (Savage). The plaster model is lost but a number of bronze casts survive. He used double mirrors to capture his familiar Inca profile, the result reprising his Jug in the Form of a Head, Self-Portrait. This was one of the earliest occasions Gauguin applied the term Oviri to himself.
The Stuttgart version of his 1892 oil painting E haere oe i hia (Where Are You Going?) depicts a woman clutching a wolf-cub. Pollitt comments that it is here, in this stocky, sculptural, and distinctly androgynous figure, that we get our first glimpse of Oviri.[e]
Whether or not the sculpture was exhibited at the Salon de la Nationale, it was subsequently placed with the café proprietor Lévy at 57 rue Saint-Lazare, with whom Gauguin had concluded an agreement to represent him before his final departure for Tahiti. It found no takers and Charles Morice subsequently attempted to raise a public subscription to buy it for the nation, but this failed. Gauguin thought his only patron likely to be interested in the work would be Gustave Fayet, who did indeed purchase it in 1905 after Gauguin's death. The price he paid was 1,500 francs.
Oviri was exhibited at the 1906 Salon d'Automne (no. 57) where it influenced Pablo Picasso, who is said to have based one of the figures in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon on it. In 2000, a bronze version of the work cast circa 1950-1960 sold at Christie's for US$64,625.
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Loss of Virginity, 1890-1891, Chrysler Museum of Art
Soyez amoureuses vous serez heureuses, 1889, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Oviri, 1894. Fogg Art Museum
Self-portrait (Oviri), bronze, 1894-5 (plaster cast). Private collection
Woman Picking Fruit and the Savage, 1896/97. Art Institute of Chicago
First issue of Le Sourire, Journal sérieux, 1899. Louvre, Cabinet des dessins
- Letter XLVIII to Monfreid: the sculpture is not named and he says in the first place he wants it to decorate his garden:"The large ceramic figure that did not find a purchaser ... I should like to have it here for the decoration of my garden and to put on my tomb in Tahiti." The ceramic was never shipped out.
- For a feminist critique of Gauguin's myth of the primitive savage, see Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Going Native, Paul Gauguin and the Invention of the Primitivist Modernist (1992)
- Gauguin copied the song into his second 1893-95 draft in collaboration with Charles Morice. This is deposited in the Louvre museum and is available in a 1947 facsimile edition appearing at pages 47-50. It doesn't appear in the 1901 published version. Danielsson calls the translation very poor and provides his own translation.
- Danielsson p. 182 n. 157 records an oral source to the effect that when Gauguin returned, his vahine Teha'amana spent a week with him but was repulsed by the running sores that covered all his body.
- Taylor p. 1 n. 1, however, is convinced the ceramic pre-dates all other representations. The 1892 painting is of dubious provenance and not known before 1923, its authenticity questioned by Richard Field, Paul Gauguin: The Paintings of the First Voyage to Tahiti (New York: Garland Publishing, 1977), p. 346.
- Cachin (1990), 208
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- van der Grijp, 126
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- Last letter to Charles Morice, April 1903, Malingue 1949, CLXXXI: "Tu t'es trompé un jour en disant que j'avais tort de dire que je suis un sauvage. Cela est cependant vrai : je suis un sauvage . Et les civilisés le pressentent : car dans mes œuvres il n'y a rien qui surprenne, déroute, si ce n'est ce « malgré-moi-de-sauvage ».C'est pourquoi c'est inimitable."
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Oviri.|
- "Bronze cast of Oviri auctioned at Christie's, New York, 9 November 2000.". Archived from the original on 21 March 2015.
- "Bronze cast of Self-portrait, Oviri auctioned at Christie's, Amsterdam, 27 November 2012". Archived from the original on 21 March 2015.